If you don’t express suffering, does this mean that you aren’t feeling any pain? This is one of the questions faced by the viewer by low-key but occasionally startling film, Quiet Chaos, by Antonello Grimaldi.
A big critical and commercial success in its native Italy and based on a bestselling novel by Sandro Veronesi, on paper it sounds like hard work. Pietro Paladini (Nanni Moretti) is a successful business executive, happily married with a 10-year old daughter, Claudia. In the opening scene, he and his brother rescue two women who are drowning in the sea. This dramatic saving of lives is juxtaposed almost immediately with death – the two men arrive home only to find Pietro’s wife lying dead in the garden. Her sudden death is never explained and barely discussed, but the ramifications of this event shape the rest of this unusual study of the mourning process.
Pietro takes his daughter back to school after the funeral and spontaneously promises her that instead of going to work, he will wait outside until her classes are over.
He continues to do this day after day, gradually building a number of small, mostly wordless connections with other regular visitors to the grassy spot – a dog-walker; a young boy with Down’s syndrome; a café owner.
His behaviour leads to a sort of notoriety and he is joined by his bosses, fellow workers and family members – his brother Carlo and his eccentric actress sister-in-law (Valeria Golino, playing slightly mad very prettily). In their attempts to console him, they instead reveal their own pain and insecurities in the face of his seeming calmness.
With very little incident across close to two hours, this film would only ever succeed on the strength of its performances and fortunately the cast is uniformly strong. Moretti appears in almost every scene but never outstays his welcome. We feel such sympathy for his character, despite the fact that he doesn’t go out of his way to cultivate this. There is something in this man’s story that invites compassion without the film-makers ever resulting to histrionics or emotional manipulation.
It becomes almost uncomfortable at times as the viewer anticipates, and is even eager for, a sense of catharsis. But we only see Pietro let down his emotional guard once, very suddenly, and the impact of this is much greater for being so isolated and brief. An uncharacteristically raw and explicit sexual encounter is similarly powerful for being at odds with the composure that is so prevalent throughout the rest of the film.
The music occasionally threatens to intrude on the naturalistic feeling of the film, with some overly saccharine piano motifs and typically glum Radiohead tunes. But this is only a minor mis-step in what is otherwise an odd little gem of a picture which manages to remain light as a feather in spite of its potentially downbeat subject matter.
But is this a fair representation of how grief really is? I’m not sure, but it is certainly very different to the Sally Field-style hand-wringing we’ve become programmed to expect from entertainment. It feels slightly oddball but genuine, with a sense of stillness and normality I suspect the audience can relate to more than any amount of dramatic wailing.
Reviewed by: The All Knowing I